Appellate Judge Tom Becker's soul is definitely off the market.
The spirit…of death!
Victorian gentleman Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) is a scientist and inventor—one of his creations is a motion picture camera. Sir Hugo and some other gentlemen have an odd hobby: they photograph people at the time of their deaths.
Studying the photographs, the men notice that each contains a smudge. Hugo speculates that the smudge is actually the soul leaving the body. But when his son and fiancee are killed in a boating accident while Hugo is filming them, the image shows the smudge actually moving toward the doomed people. Sir Hugo deduces that the smudge is actually an Asphyx, a spirit of death that takes the soul of one someone who's about to die.
Hugo inadvertently has created a light source that can capture an Asphyx, a discovery he makes while filming an execution. He determines that by replicating the light source—which consists of crystals that are activated by a steady stream of water—he can keep an Asphyx trapped in perpetuity; thus, the person associated with that Asphyx will never die.
Yes, Hugo has found the key to immortality. All he has to do is create a situation that puts himself close to death in order to conjure up his Asphyx, and then, with an assistant controlling the crystal-and-water light, trap it and lock it away, guaranteeing that he will never die.
Naturally, all this comes with a heavy price.
A chilly little British number that co-opts the banshee legend with a gothic story about a quest of immortality, The Asphyx isn't a film of shocking horror, but it's subtly creepy and engrossing. That the film is so well-produced helps it overcome a general feel that it would work just as well as an extended episode of a TV show like The Twilight Zone.
The Victorian England setting, beautiful art direction, stunning cinematography, and low-key chills give off a Hammer horror feel; I was half expecting Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing to turn up as one of Sir Hugo's friends. In truth, as talented as Robert Stephens is, I found myself wishing Lee or Cushing had been cast in the lead role. Stephens is a wonderful actor, but he doesn't bring a lot of spark to the character; he lacks the kind of megalomaniacal menace that comes with the whole "Guy Playing God" thing, the slow descent into madness as the master plan falls apart. As his adopted son/assistant, Robert Powell (The Survivor) turns in a strong performance, as does Jane Lapotaire (Eureka) as Hugo's daughter and Powell's love interest (a little sticky, but hey, they're British), whose discovery of her father's experiments lead to some grisly plot twists.
The film takes quite a few liberties where Sir Hugo's experiments with electricity are concerned. Apparently, the guy scooped Thomas Edison and company not just with the invention of motion pictures, but the electric chair, as well. While it's easy enough to suspend disbelief—after all, this is the story of a mythical creature that bears the soul away, but can be subdued and captured with a special lighting source—you have to wonder why it wasn't just set a few decades later when such things actually existed.
When The Asphyx came along, the Hammer-style gothic chiller subgenre was on its way out. Audiences were more interested in horror films that contained graphic violence and nudity, neither of which is on display here. The Asphyx is a bit too cerebral to work as a Saturday matinee item for kids, and too tame to fly with older audiences, so it didn't do a whole lot of business, but it seems to have had a fairly healthy life on television, where it cut play virtually uncut on Chiller Theater Creature Feature broadcasts.
Redemption offers two cuts of The Asphyx: the original 86 minute, and a 99-minute extended cut. The additional footage fleshes out the story a bit, but really doesn't add a whole lot. The extended footage was sourced from a different print than the bulk of the film, and a title card warns that the extended scenes will not look as good as the rest of the film. They're not kidding; the additional footage looks terrible, like it was pulled from an old VHS tape.
Fortunately, everything else looks spectacular. The production designer was John Stoll (Lawrence of Arabia), and Freddie Young (Doctor Zhivago) did the cinematography, so the film looks great, with terrific period atmosphere, and the transfer does it justice, with a solid image that features bright, true colors and excellent contrast. The mono audio track is fine. Unfortunately, supplements are limited to a photo gallery and trailers.
A neat, intelligent little cult item, The Asphyx is worth checking out for fans of Hammer-esque gothic horror.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Salvation Films
• Theatrical Cut
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